In Profile: Claudia Gee Vassar

Claudia Gee Vassar, President and General Counsel, Houston Botanic Garden, and Nancy O’Connor Abendshein, Chairman, Board of Directors. Photo: Jenny Antill Photography.

Houston’s first botanic garden opened in September 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, offering locals a green escape from the confines of their living spaces into 132 acres of living museum.

Some 2.5 miles of walking trails guide visitors along a bayou meander and through six outdoor gallery spaces displaying a collection of tropical, sub-tropical and arid plants from around the world to showcase the biodiversity that thrives along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Claudia Gee Vassar, President and General Counsel of the Garden, joined the institution’s long journey towards establishment (18 years from nonprofit formation to opening day) in 2016.

She shares her insights with StreetChat about the creation and growth of a very rare thing in 2020: a brand-new botanic garden.

1. What inspires you?

I am inspired by people. I love being surrounded by people with varied experiences and perspectives and learning from them. I particularly am inspired by people’s passions to make this planet and our community better for all people and their drive to fulfill their unique purpose in life. I love seeing how so many different people are engaged in pursuing their passions whether full time, as a volunteer, or through the many ways that they support this work

2. What attracted you to working on the garden project, helping to make it a reality?

It is such an incredible honor and privilege as a native Houstonian who loves this city to be a part of creating a place and an organization that will inspire this community, my kids, and so many generations to come to love plants and the natural environment. We rarely have the opportunity to be in at the ground floor and to influence the creation and path forward for such an important institution in our cultural and green amenities.

I also was really attracted to the people who were already involved in this project, people with incredible passion for the mission, in it for all the right reasons, and that I knew would be great to work with to ensure the success of the Houston Botanic Garden.

What I didn’t know when I signed up is that the botanic garden community, regionally and nationally, is an incredibly collaborative community who would also be an incredible resource heavily interested in our success and tremendously supportive as we have moved forward.

3. The Houston Botanic Garden nonprofit organisation formed in 2002 – and the groundbreaking for construction occurred in 2019. When you joined the project, what stage was the garden at on its journey towards construction and opening? What were the key concerns at the time?

When I joined, in fall 2016, the Garden had signed a lease with the City and completed a master plan. We shortly thereafter launched the capital campaign, as the City wanted us to show that there was sufficient community support for the project to turn over the land, and we raised $20 million by the end of 2017 to demonstrate that. We also launched the design of Phase 1 and subsequently the construction.

Looking back, it has been quite the journey. The board has been very supportive as we have grown the team from just me to now nearly 30 employees.

What were the concerns when I joined? First, was gaining community support through educating the community about what a botanic garden is and listening to their concerns to find mutually beneficial solutions. We know that we will have years of work to help people understand who we are and who we will be and the impact that we will have on the community and the City. This will always be a dialogue with the community on what their priorities and needs are and how we can help fill those in line with our mission.

Related, we wanted to be sure that we gathered as much input as we could as we launched the plans for Phase 1, so we spent a good deal of time in conversations with that when I first joined. As I mentioned, there was also a short timeline for raising significant support for the Garden, so that also became a priority of focus.

Then finally, was the journey to get all the right people in place to help build the organisation and also the right team to operate the Garden.

A living museum: 132 acres of garden, that was once a municipal golf course. The Garden includes the Sims Bayou meander.

4. What was it like to open the garden during a pandemic?

It was hard. Just like pretty much everything during a pandemic. We had many conversations about whether to move forward with opening or not. At the end of the day, we were very motivated by what we were seeing and hearing in the community about people looking for a safe place to be that is outside, healing, and inspiring. Families were looking for a place to be together. Most everyone started to discover or rediscover just how much they enjoy being in nature and how important it is. All of that really pushed us to go ahead and open and be a resource to the community.

5. How have locals and city-dwellers been using the space?

We have seen visitors use the space in myriad ways. Some come to just be alone and sit and rest and meditate and think, others to work, now that remote work is such a thing. We see lots of families, particularly with little ones, out to recreate and learn about so many different plants that they don’t get to see in their neighborhoods and parks. I love seeing the multigenerational families coming out together; one of four generations all came out. Those moments are really special.

We have seen dates and proposals and will be starting to host micro-weddings and are thrilled to be an important place in visitors’ lives. We have walkers who enjoy coming on a very regular basis to get their exercise in and watch the landscape change through the seasons. And there are the curious who just want to see what this is all about and love new experiences who are capturing all the uniqueness with fun photos as they meander through.

6. There is seating throughout the garden – we don’t always see this in public spaces, what was the philosophy here for how you wanted people to use the garden?

While we have exhibits of plants that we want people to explore and learn from, ultimately we want people to love plants and the natural environment, which sometimes just means being close to it, gazing upon it, and enjoying it. So, the seating is strategically placed to have moments of quiet enjoyment for one or two, and also some places for larger groups to gather. They are situated to have some enclosed, more private spaces, and some out in the open to be a part of the activity.

We also have some seating along pathways to provide moments of rest for some of our longer walks, as our 132 acres means that some of the walks can be quite long. Care was taken to ensure that visitors would be comfortable for short rests and also longer stays.

We wanted the furniture to blend in with the landscape, be inviting, and also withstand the Houston weather to be comfortable for years to come.

7. What are some of the big ambitions of this brand-new botanic garden (quite a rare thing)?

Our long-term ambitions are to build on this place of beauty and some of the education and interpretation that we have begun, to help visitors grow deeper in their knowledge of plants to expand greater educational offerings (of course that will be easier once we are on the other side of COVID-19).

We will begin offering classes, camps, seminars, and symposiums. We will also start rotating exhibits for deeper dives and unique offerings that tie to the Gardens.

We will always be expanding our collections of plants to both participate in conserving plant biodiversity and increasing what our visitors can experience.

The Garden also plans to expand our research and conservation pillars, which are instrumental to our vision for the Houston Botanic Garden. We have laid the foundation for all of this and have started with a few things, and look forward to more in the years to come!

8. What are some of the plans for the next 30 years of the garden’s development?

The next phases for the Garden will include additional gardens, we are currently thinking a seasonal ideas garden where home gardeners can get ideas on what to plant in their gardens and horticulture design ideas, and a shade garden which is both nice for escaping the Houston heat and since shade gardens are often difficult to figure out how to achieve at home and because there are some wonderful varieties of species to grow.

We are also taking a pause this year to see how people use the Garden and learn about what visitors would like to see in future gardens, if they would want more formal gardens, specific genera or species, or what ideas they may have.

We also hope to do some significant work on our meander to clean up invasives, stabilize the banks, and create ways for visitors to interact with the bayou more.

We also plan to add more buildings as we prioritized gardens in Phase 1. It will be important to us to add buildings to service Education, Events, Administration, and a Welcome Center in years to come.

We also have big ambitions for programs with rotating exhibits that bring visitors in to see the Garden and plants and nature through a different lens.

For more information please see the Houston Botanic Garden website, and our recent case study.

In Profile is a Q&A series featuring influencers of the public realm: players in the public sphere with compelling stories, not always landscape architects or affiliated with Street Furniture Australia.

To nominate an interviewee, please contact 

Wetlands Plants along the Littoral Shelf of the Lagoon in the Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Upland Forest in the Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
The Savanna in the Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Looking toward the Tropical Heart in the Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Lagoon with Cypress-lined Boardwalk Maze in the Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Curiosity Cabinet in Upland Forest in Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Arid Valley in the Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.
Alcoves behind the Tropical Heart in the Global Collection Garden. Photo: Michael Tims.

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